On the train to suburbia from the hustle of New Street Station, they passed station platforms still frosted by slowly-melting ice, forming hard clumps where the sun had not yet reached. Temperatures were low but they had on their warm coats, their boots, their gloves and they knew that soon they would be in a warm place, a warm place akin to hell, but a different kind of hell to the frozen streets where their breath froze in mid air.
Stopped by a woman near the Co-Op, she was asked to buy a Big Issue. She hadn’t bought one in years. The woman smiled, deeply personable, her English impeccable, and her headscarf flimsy protection against the bitter chill of the weak afternoon December sun. She parted with £2.50, in return receiving her magazine, a smile, and a ‘Happy New Year’ greeting. How bizarre that someone in such dire straits would wish her a happy new year.
In the nursing home, her father grinned, missing a few teeth. He was play acting, called her Betty again, asked about Fred again, wondered where he was again, talked about Egypt again, and asked the same questions again, and again, and again, and again. Still, it was a better visit than recently, despite him drinking her bottle of water, spittle sliding into it as he swigged. Giving him chocolate was a mistake though. It was smeared all over his teeth and dribbling down his chin. She wiped his mouth with a tissue which she disposed of carefully. He was playful with the teenage granddaughter he vaguely recognised from somewhere.
Later, inspecting a Las Iguanas menu back in the city centre, a man stopped them, right next to a burly black bouncer on the door. He asked for 60p to add to the change in his hand for a hotdog. She was a little taken aback at such a direct approach but fiddled in her purse, finding only a £2 coin. “Here, have this”. He said thank you and shuffled off.Her daughter approved, saying that the man seemed to have a plan, and after all, he’d only asked for 60p. Earlier, she had seen a young man stop to give money to someone in the subway, saying: ‘get yourself something warm’. Humanity in the city.
She saw the woman she had passed earlier on her way to the Apple Store, bidding her daughter to head for Tesco. There she bought a meal deal, proffering it to the woman whose mouth was full of the hot potato she had been given. She was pushing it down way too quickly, obviously desperately hungry. ‘Thank you, thank you’, she said, through mouthfuls of burning steam. Walking along back to Broad Street, and the canal network, she was asked many times for an offering. She had no more coins.
‘Funny how they ask you’ said her daughter. ‘You are very approachable. They let other people walk by, but they stop you’. One lady apologised for asking. She felt terrible. To have to not only ask for food or money, but to also apologise for it felt sad beyond measure. It made her angry about the plight of these people.
Another man was standing outside of the warm restaurant they were visiting. She felt terrible again, and wondered about asking the staff to give him a hot drink. Why didn’t they do that anyway? Company policy, probably. Or inured to it. She decided to leave a tip and give him some money as she left but by this time, he had gone. Walking back along the canal, they passed two young men, not well clad, with a dog which was carefully covered. They wrapped themselves in their sleeping bags, sat away from each other. One got nothing, the other was given a hot drink. Luck of the draw. Or location, location, location?
She went back to her hotel room and read her Big Issue, about how we shouldn’t judge the character of the homeless, we should just, like all the best detectives, seek solutions to the problem, as if we are trying to solve a murder. Given homeless people survive on average three years on the streets, murder felt a good analogy. Homelessness is such a massive problem, yet every single person she had met had been pleasant, polite, desperate but wished her a happy new year, though theirs couldn’t hope to be.
The next morning, she popped to Sainsbury’s for pastries and juice. A woman sat wrapped in her sleeping bag outside. This time, no hesitation; she was getting into the swing of giving food to people. She bought extra and gave it to the sandy haired woman. Someone had got to the lady first but that didn’t matter, she needed all the food people could muster. She said: ‘God bless you. Happy New Year’.
Down to the Library of Birmingham, two guys were still asleep in their sleeping bags. One had an empty Quality Street tin by his bed on the hard ground. She had chocolate in her bag; it seemed fitting to put the chocolate in his tin so he would wake up to something good. He didn’t stir as she gently placed the goods at his side.
As they caught the train home, they didn’t eat a thing.